In the last few days of Student Teacher Placement 1, I shift modes from being an active participant in the training environment to looking at the teacher’s actions and attitudes with the perspective of an evaluator of skills and practices that I may want to emulate for my own class. I took a list of evaluation criteria and critically observed the professional I had been working with and sought to dissect their behaviors with the eye to determine exactly what she was doing and why. I intended to look at a number of specific behaviors, speculate at their value or impact in the educational environment, determine how these behaviors might help me in my own teaching.
The teacher in question, Mrs. Lisa Luton, teaches a variety of English Language Arts classes that address different skill levels. While the class range from 9th grade English I through Advance Placement to Dual Credit College Preparatory, the strategies and methodologies are the same across all classes. Over the course of several months, I closely observed her teaching strategies and sought to both emulate and incorporate them for my own use. In my opinion, she is an excellent teacher, capable student motivator, and definitive subject matter expert.
During my observations, I saw her utilize a variety of grouping strategies in working with students. In most cases, instruction starts in a whole class setting where the initial information and task instructions are relayed. Then, the students are released to complete the task individually. This forces the student to apply their own understanding to the question.
Next, the students are to share their findings in a small group or pair’s situation, to discover more information and increase their understanding. After that, they are to go to a person outside of their group, exponentially increasing the chance of uncovering new perspectives. Finally, the entire group is canvassed to determine what insights were discovered or what understandings need further clarification. This combination method ensures the students draw from the largest pool of knowledge available to them in this setting.
This was chosen as an important strategy of learning due to its inherent advantage in both the academic and social realms. The student must first work within the limits of their own knowledge, then work in a cooperative social setting with peers to broaden their knowledge. Simultaneously, they are developing interpersonal and communication skills. When the groups are shuffled, the student must exercise those same skill-sets a second time. Finally, the teacher works to correct misinformation. It is the multipurpose approach that makes this strategy appealing.
This teacher has a preferred routine of presentation. The bell ringer assignments are in a predictable pattern that provides structure and a comforting environment to the students. After this starter task, the students are introduced to the ‘new’ material in the form of a new text. Though the text may be new, there is a repeating cycle to how the students approach the material.
They follow the same strategies that are routinely reinforced. The new learning comes after the initial action of ‘active reading’ is complete. They will then look at the material from a specific English/Language Arts (ELA) perspective. It is these routines that allow the teacher to streamline the planning process and the students to develop a sense of rhythm in learning.
In the realm of academic expectations, Mrs. Luton has high expectations and continually communicates them to the students. With every assignment given, she is clear about the completion expectations and, either verbally or in writing, communicates those expectations to the students.
During longer assignments, these expectations are reiterated and checks on progress are performed. She motivates and encourages participation by using a “ticket” based reward system. The “tickets” are redeemed for privilege or grade alterations/assignment negations.
This allows the students to have a sense of urgency with the task, keep aware of approaching deadlines, and for the teacher to do continual checks on learning or completion assessments. This is a valuable tool for both the student and the teacher and is an excellent means of communication. It demonstrates that the teacher and student both have an investment in the learning process.
In the classroom, there are several environmental factors that contribute greatly to a positive learning situation. The room is decorated with a few personal touches. There is furniture that can be used as a separate study/workspace and the lighting, which comes from fluorescents, is normally subdued to prevent a stark, harsh appearance from the school’s glaringly white cinderblock construction.
The teacher presents an authoritative demeanor where there is a range of freedom for the students, but control is maintained in a gentle positive manner. There is also a bit of humor in the room with a light, somewhat self-deprecating manner evidenced by the teacher. Students can express themselves, so long as it does not interfere with instruction.
A major part of this situation is the concept that the students understand that they all will be treated fairly and evenly. Any distractions or student incited deviations from the lesson plan are dealt with swiftly but gently. This teacher as a great sense of “withitness” or “situational awareness”. She can deal with student requests for assistance directly in front of her while maintaining knowledge of occurrences in other parts of the classroom. I hope to develop or adapt my skills to this environment.
The last part of the environmental picture is the way that the teacher provides feedback to the student. There are two parts to this discussion, written and verbal. This teacher takes great pains to let the students know how their written work is progressing by providing a rubric, most often the Advance Placement Writing Rubric, or a rubric that is specifically modified to fit the assignment and assessment that is significant for a specific instructional purpose. She makes notes on student material to indicate areas of suggested improvement that are concrete and actionable.
In the realm of verbal feedback, this is an area in which Mrs. Luton is less demonstrative. If the student is correct, a simple “yes” or “correct” is the most common response. If the student’s response is incorrect or insufficient, she takes one of two approaches. The first is to canvas the group for an alternate response and then follow up with a “Do you understand?” type question. If she feels that the answer only requires more elaboration, she is prone to ask additional probing questions to entice the student to explore the issue further.
It is this type of supportive environment that I hope to foster in my classroom. I hope to create a space that is comforting and safe, where the students feel free to explore various approaches to learning with the free expression of ideas, but I still guide the process with a firm but caring hand. I know that in this type of classroom, the students can become emboldened toward classroom participation, where they can take risks that are protected from a degree of failure, and they are willing to work with the teacher in the educational process rather than be a passive participant.
In the rare instances when the classroom begins to get unruly or the students must have their attention redirected from their own pursuits to focus on the teacher, she has a phrase that is spoken in a clear commanding tone and repeated if need be. She states that she needs “their clear and undivided attention” or “all attention on me, with full body language participation.” I find the second statement cumbersome and likely will not use it. My preferred statement is “eyes on me” with a physical gesture of matching my eyes to their eyes.
This eye contact is meant to enforce the seriousness of what I am about to impart. I have observed other teachers use a bell tone to attract attention. This may be something worth considering. However, when I am in a classroom environment, I find this technique effective but degrading. I give attention so as to not have to be subjected to that action again.
When I consider what I have observed from Mrs. Luton, it appears that planning is a continual process and always in flux. The ideal situation that she strives for is to have good quality activities and instruction ready at all times that is formatted in a manner that a substitute can follow. She has her educational goals established for the year.
These are in alignment with the State Standards. From there, she has broken the goals into units that align with the grading cycles, and then the units are further subdivided into weekly goals that have enough flexibility on daily goals to account for unexpected occurrences. When looking at a specific day’s lesson plan, these are not finalized until the week before they are to be implemented
. The daily plan is usually two activities, a bell ringer followed by a new lesson or continuation of a previous lesson. The lesson format follows a repeating cycle that allows the students to have a structure. This repeating structure gives the ability to accommodate outside interference and the inclusion of “teachable moments” that cannot be planned for in the normal course of events.
As stated previously, the repeating schedule reduces the stress in the planning process. The teacher need only vary the details and gradually increase the complexity of the tasks that have become routine. It also speeds the planning process for more routine student tasks.
As Mrs. Luton applies the concept, the bell ringer assignment is the manipulation of a mentor sentence taken from the text that is being studied in the instructional segment of the lesson. This instructional segment is based around a specific text that embodies an intended literary idea such as structure, figurative language, theme, tone, characterization, etc.
The final, and most important aspect, that a teacher can present is preparedness. During my observations, the teacher has given the appearance of being almost 100% prepared for every learning situation. She has done enough planning to know, with certainty, what the activities are to be for the day.
She has researched, or has the experience, to know what aspects of which narratives are to be stressed in which lesson. Additionally, she has arranged all the materials or computer lessons that are to be used and has them ready for the students.
I know that she has worked out the methods to limit what material must be produced for the students. For a lesson, she obtains literature from a reputable website and has copies made for all classes.
These copies are formatted such that the student has enough room to make notes on the copy, obviating the need for other supplies. In other cases, she constructs materials, handouts or organizers on web-based applications that the students have access to on school provided technology. She has also designed lessons that reuse (build upon) materials from previous lessons to supplement the current one.
From a practical standpoint, I have observed that this preparation may be completed only moments before the students are to utilize the material. She uses every resource at her disposal, be it student aid or student runner, to have the material ready before the need. In other cases, she finds alternative methods to present the same material or activity and then uses prepared material (handouts or organizers) as reinforcement.
I know that this preparation is essential for the smooth running of the instructional session. Knowing the content and sequence allows for efficient use of time, decreases disruptions during transitions, and helps with the dynamic between the teacher and the students. The teacher has the appearance of professionalism and control.
In my own situation, I know that, once the plans are solidified, being prepared means that you have present a professional and trustworthy appearance, have more time to consider the non-educational instruction and can exercise a positive learning situation. There are more things than just the mechanics of language that students both need to and want to learn, either by direct instruction or my observing positive examples.
It is in these areas of instruction, learning environment, and planning that the experienced teacher as many concepts and lessons to impart the to the beginning teacher. They directly model successful practices for the learner to assimilate and emulate. I have seen Mrs. Luton effectively and efficiently run a classroom with in variety of challenging situations and I can only hope to incorporate them into my teaching practices.